Sunday, August 20, 2017

John Buchan

The sections below from Suzannah's site were originally posted in 2011, the material after that regarding Buchan's reputed anti-Semitism is new to this site.

I've been exploring the site I discovered a couple of days ago, In Which I Read Vintage Novels, and enjoying it thoroughly especially since Suzannah's six favorite authors are also among my favorites. One of those authors is John Buchan. In her review of his The Thirty-Nine Steps, she explains one of the reasons Christian readers may particularly enjoy the books:
.... His characters may rarely mention it and they certainly never preach, but they, like their creator move within the paradigm of the Bible, the Pilgrim's Progress, and the kirk (Scots for 'church'): it is a part of their lives in an unobtrusive, all-encompassing way: if it isn't an off-hand quotation of Scripture, it's a reference to the hero being an elder of the Free Kirk (like Dickson McCunn). .... How many fictional church-going people do you know that are as interesting as the real kind? Either they're too heavenly-minded to be any earthly use, or they are slimy evil hypocrites (depending on whether the author is religious or not). I have already mentioned that Buchan made virtue deeply beautiful to me; and he did so in large part by depicting an active, masculine, un-pietistic Christianity that lives rather than preaches what it believes. ....
In another post she expands upon that point:
.... In my review of The Thirty-Nine Steps I tried to explain why I so deeply love Buchan's casual references to his characters' Christianity. The reason why I love it so is that it seems the dead opposite of the internal pietism that plagues Christian literature today. I did not have space to fully develop it then, so by your leave I'll try it again here.

Buchan, like most devout Christian writers until this century, refused to turn his novels into tracts: instead of preaching to his audience, he draws them into a Lewisian Enjoyment of Christendom. It is much more powerful to mention that your brave, honourable, plucky, and humble hero is an elder of the Guthrie Memorial Kirk than to have him stop mid-story and deliver a short sermon on Psalm 15. And never does Buchan list or preach the attributes of a godly man. He simply depicts them ceaselessly: courage, valour, strength, perseverance, fortitude, chastity, humility, loyalty, honesty. He depicts these virtues as admirable things, embodied by capable men, and then by casual references peppered throughout his works lets the reader know that the homeland of these good qualities is Christendom. It is Christian perseverance that gives Buchan's heroes the ability to stand fast and quit themselves like men, whether charging into wartime Germany or street brawls.

The result is that the reader is drawn into the experience and enjoyment of faith, rather than exhorted to study it; and both the Christian and the secular readers are presented with a persuasive argument of the delightfulness of Christian virtue. ....
The most problematic aspect of Buchan's thrillers is the appearance of racial and ethnic stereotypes, among which his portrayal of Jews. Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her collection of essays titled Victorian Minds, writes about Buchan in chapter IX, "John Buchan: The Last Victorian," addressing the question of anti-Semitism:
.... The same observations may be made of Buchan's alleged anti-Semitism. What some have condemned as insensitivity or condescension may also be taken as a forthright expression of opinion—or not so much opinion, because that is to dignify it as a conscious judgment, but rather impression or experience. One cannot reasonably object to references to Jewish rag dealers and pawnbrokers, Jewish Communists and financiers, when these were in fact conspicuous both as individuals and as types in an otherwise ethnically homogeneous society—unless one is prepared to impose a decree of silence on the entire subject of Jews. Nor is it reasonable to take offense at the patently fairy-tale account of an international conspiracy devised by Jewish anarchists and Jewish financiers for different and ingenious reasons, and led by a "little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake" who is avenging himself for centuries of persecution. If Buchan's Jewish villains are to be kept account of, the ledger ought also to include the Jewish heroes: the "richest man in the world," who is an entirely honorable and sympathetic figure and who is made the victim of another conspiracy precisely because his mission was to secure peace in the world....

This is not to suggest that Buchan's novels can be acquitted of the charge of anti-Semitism.  .... But this kind of anti-Semitism, indulged in at that time and place, was both too common and too passive to be scandalous. Men were normally anti-Semitic, unless by some quirk of temperament or ideology they happened to be philo-Semitic. So long as the world itself was normal, this was of no great consequence. .... It was Hitler, attaching such abnormal significance to filiation and physiognomy, who put an end to the casual, innocent anti-Semitism of the clubman. When the conspiracies of the English adventure tale became the realities of German politics, Buchan and others had the grace to realize that what was permissible under civilized conditions was not permissible with civilization in extremis. Mountain Meadow, his last book, composed on the eve of World War II and in the shadow of his own death, was a tract exalting "brotherhood," as that term is understood in the now orthodox liberal lexicon. It is amusing to note that among the many financiers appearing in its pages, there is not a single Jew.

Nor was it only in his later novels that Buchan displayed an admirable sense of social responsibility. Early in 1934, long before most Englishmen had even discovered the fact, Buchan publicly denounced Hitler's anti-Semitism, and, like Milner before him, espoused the cause of Zionism. It is tempting to remark upon the irony of the fact that the fictional perpetrator of Jewish-capitalist-communist conspiracies should have had his name inscribed, in solemn ceremony, in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund. Buchan himself would have found nothing "ironic" about this. Fiction was fiction, reality reality. Moreover his Zionism, like his fiction, was concerned not to obliterate differences but to respect them, not to deny, in more conventional liberal fashion, the Jewish identity, but to assert and promote it. ....
The Himmelfarb Buchan essay can also be found here as a pdf.

I've posted a number of times about Buchan on this site.